Brain Damage 

Someone in our heads but it's not us

When I taught journalism, I assigned my classes Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist From Mars. It's a collection of histories of people whose brains have been altered by trauma, genetic dysfunction or sensory deprivation.

The title essay is about Temple Grandin, an autistic college professor whose disability allows her to explain to humans how animals--specifically cows--think. She's more understanding of cows than she is of humans. In fact, from her place on the autism spectrum, she looks at humans as an alien species, worthy of study, but not, like cows, worthy of empathy.

Anthropologist is a good book for journalism classes. It demonstrates you cannot assume other people live in the same world you live in. The brain is a sensory organ, but one of its main jobs is to limit the infinite and the grotesque to the finite and the normal. No two brains approach that task in the same way, or with the same results.

Usually the process works too well. Sacks tells the story of a man who regained sight after 45 years of blindness. He couldn't handle the complexity of the visible world, and eventually chose to live with eyes closed.

Voluntary blindness is a cautionary metaphor for beginning journalists. You use the language to make your readers want to know more, not be comfortable in their assumptions. Much of my teaching focused on seeing possibilities as opposed to certainties, observable facts as opposed to cherished beliefs. A well-researched story and what my students were already certain about were never the same things.

"A news story should involve the extraordinary," I would say, "and the extraordinary is always there if you haven't preconceived it out of existence. Make sure you don't cherry-pick the data so that the world mirrors your own blind beliefs. That sort of thing wrecks your writing. It doesn't do the world any good, either."

My own interest in Oliver Sacks went beyond his usefulness in journalism class. I was fascinated with his ability to restore the infinite, even if he had to go through the grotesque to do it. In each of his histories, he demonstrates how adaptable damaged humans are, and how they can turn injuries into assets. A painter rendered colorblind by a minor car accident starts producing works of disturbing acuity. A man whose brain tumor has blinded him and destroyed his near-term memory becomes a source of joy and wit in a hopeless hospital ward. An autistic child produces detailed architectural drawings with near-photographic accuracy.

I loved these stories of beauty found in human ruins. My students did too, for the most part. Some of them had grandparents with Alzheimer's, and others, to pay for college, worked in assisted living homes or rehab programs where they dealt with victims of head injuries. In Oliver Sacks, they found a sturdy and cheerful guide for a dangerous and dreary terrain.

All of us, however, found it frightening to realize the fragility of human perception. "So many things can go wrong," said one of my students. "One car accident or one screwed-up chromosome becomes your whole life. You're stuck forever in that one moment."

Journalism class didn't seem much like journalism class at that moment. I took the opportunity to jump from the Who What When Where of things all the way down to the Whys--in the form of overwhelming existential questions that had first occurred to me in faculty committee meetings:

"When is it," I asked the class, "that you stop being open to experience? When do you choose sensory deprivation? When do you become a crank, repeating the same tired story over and over?"

"For this we pay tuition," said a student.

"More than you know," I said. "But there are worse questions to think about."

"If you're over 40," said someone else, as if over 40 was a far country.

A lot of those students are living in that far country now, but I'm certain, mostly, that they're not thinking about these questions. That's because their lives and the universe they live in can be described as mostly finite and mostly normal. Their politics are fixed, their horizons defined, their issues settled.

That's because life itself causes brain damage. It isn't always a car accident or heading the ball too many times during high-school soccer, not wearing your hard hat, falling off your horse, meth addiction, too much time on heart-lung machines or a IED blast through the window of a Humvee.

If you go through life as a stress case, you'll marinate your brain in the hormone cortisol. It will shrink. The brain shrinks anyway, over time. You tend to lose an IQ point a year beyond 21. The average brain is the same size at age 70 as it was at age 3.

Bad marriages, betrayals, incidents of emotional abuse, the deaths of children, moments of humiliation--all these burn the brain and cause parts of it to wither, and the resulting imbalance causes us to become cranks, stuck forever in a single moment. Beauty is seldom a part of it. It can look like demonic possession, and it's tempting to ascribe all the stupid mistakes of the world to a plague of Mephistopheles-like companions whispering in our heads.

More likely it's just wear and tear on our brains.

I've wondered at the wisdom of a culture that lets old men run things, even though most of them are well past the age where injuries can become assets. Instead, for them, blindness has become preferable to seeing the complexities of the visible world.

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